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Manny Pacquiao eyes boxing return with Saudi sportswashing event

The legendary boxer retired in 2021 to focus on campaigning for the Philippines presidency, which he lost several months ago.

Manny Pacquiao Charity Marathon Photo by Jun Sato/WireImage

Just months after conceding defeat in the Philippines presidential election, Manny Pacquiao is hinting at a potential return to the ring.

The 43-year-old former world champion is currently considering an exhibition bout against former sparring partner Jaber Zayani in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia next January.

“We will just start discussions,” Pacquiao told AFP.

Pacquiao is currently preparing for a charity bout against South Korean YouTuber DK Yoo, which will take place in Seoul, South Korea, The fight will last six rounds with the generated revenue being used to rebuild homes in war-torn Ukraine.

While Pacquiao isn’t the first boxing legend to compete on the exhibition circuit, his decision to host the potential bout in Saudi Arabia is troubling, and marks the latest example of how the kingdom has relied on sports such as boxing to distract from ongoing human rights abuses—a tactic known as sportswashing.

Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions on high-profile international sports and entertainment events. The strategic investment is part of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ masterplan that aims to reduce Saudi’s economic dependence on oil but it also serves to distract from ongoing human rights abuses committed by the kingdom with impunity, as well its ongoing war in Yemen that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis among the worst in the world.

The kingdom’s sports portfolio includes annual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) premium live events, a Formula One Grand Prix, the Saudi Cup horse race, several boxing showdowns, and the LIV professional golf tour financed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Most recently, Saudi also hosted the heavyweight boxing rematch between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua.